The Everlasting Man – Part 1, Chapter 1: The Man in the Cave

The journey ‘around the world’ continues with the start of time itself.  In the Modernist point-of-view man has been continually evolving and becoming  more and more perfect but that would mean that in the past man was not as complete as we are today – man must have been some sort of animal.  This is the argument that Chesterton is refuting.

Overview of Chapter:

The cave man is a man like us because of his art, it is only the misrepresentation of the man of science that makes the ‘pre-historic’ man an animal.  The slow development of man is in fact more illogical than a swift development, the time of the process has nothing to do with the process itself.  In argumentation there is a tactic known as a time shift – a ‘red herring’ where the scope of an issue is trumped by the chronology of the issue.  By changing the time-frame, playing the blame game, changing a optimizing decision to a sufficiency decision, the issue is left behind.  Chesterton brings the argument away from the time battle to the issue of ‘Is there really a difference between us in the present and those in the past?’

Outline of Chapter:

What is man?  Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet : “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”  The modernists and scientist of Chesterton’s day as well as ours takes Hamlet’s position… to them it nothing.  They seem to start with a presumption that God does not exist, then go to worshiping an unproven explanation because it takes the wonder and mystery out of the universe. (Dilbert’s explanation: (Tom Weller’s explanation in Science Made Stupid:  Of course these two jests make light of the fact that the issue of First Cause is swept under the rug, just as evolution really does not explain anything.

“It is really far more logical to start by saying ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’ even if you only mean ‘In the beginning some unthinkable power began some unthinkable process.’ For God is by its nature a name of mystery, and nobody ever supposed that man could imagine how a world was created any more than he could create one. But evolution really is mistaken for explanation. It has the fatal quality of leaving on many minds the impression that they do understand it and everything else; just as many of them live under a sort of illusion that they have read the Origin of Species.”

In rhetoric, science and other fields of self-proclaimed rationality there are two methods of arriving at a conclusion: deductive and inductive.  The problem about looking at the past is that the past is that it is inductive (and thus can not unbiased) and could be any amount of time away.  A Tuesday could be last week, two weeks, a month, a year, or a dozen lifetimes ago.  Time in this sense seems to heal all inconsistencies, and make the impossible believable.

“For a man who does not believe in a miracle, a slow miracle would be just as incredible as a swift one. The Greek witch may have turned sailors to swine with a stroke of the wand. But to see a naval gentleman of our acquaintance looking a little more like a pig every day, till he ended with four trotters and a curly tail, would not be any more soothing. It might be rather more creepy and uncanny. The medieval wizard may have flown through the air from the top of a tower; but to see an old gentleman walking through the air, in a leisurely and lounging manner, would still seem to call for some explanation. Yet there runs through all the rationalistic treatment of history this curious and confused idea that difficulty is avoided, or even mystery eliminated, by dwelling on mere delay or on something dilatory in the processes of things.”

But going back to man.  In every view of scientific history, the society that has captured the heart of those modernistic thinkers is the Cave-Man.  The image of such a ‘poor savage’ has propagated out culture from books, films, tv shows, and insurance commercials.

“To-day all our novels and newspapers will be found swarming with numberless allusions to a popular character called a Cave-Man. He seems to be quite familiar to us, not only as a public character but as a private character. His psychology is seriously taken into account in psychological fiction and psychological medicine. So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about, or treating women in general with what is, I believe, known in the world of the film as ‘rough stuff.’ I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded. Nor, as I have explained elsewhere, have I ever been able to see the probability of it, even considered a priori. We are always told without any explanation or authority that primitive man waved a club and knocked the woman down before he carried her off. But on every animal analogy, it would seem an almost morbid modesty and reluctance, on the part of the lady, always to insist on being knocked down before consenting to be carried off. And I repeat that I can never comprehend why, when the male was so very rude, the female should have been so very refined. The cave-man may have been a brute, but there is no reason why he should have been more brutal than the brutes. And the loves of the giraffes and the river romance of the hippopotami are effected without any of this preliminary fracas or shindy. The cave-man may have been no better that the cave-bear; but the child she-bear, so famous in hymnology, is not trained with any such bias for spinsterhood. In short these details of the domestic life of the cave puzzle me upon either the revolutionary or the static hypothesis; and in any case I should like to look into the evidence for them, but unfortunately I have never been able to find it. But the curious thing is this: that while ten thousand tongues of more or less scientific or literary gossip seemed to be talking at once about this unfortunate fellow, under the title of the cave-man, the one connection in which it is really relevant and sensible to talk about him as the cave-man has been comparatively neglected. People have used this loose term in twenty loose ways, but they have never even looked at their own term for what could really be learned from it.  In fact, people have been interested in everything about the cave-man except what he did in the cave.”

What Chesterton is saying here is that to prove that man in an animal, people take the man out of him – leaving the cave out as well.  This subtraction of words leaves the man with nothing.  Let us go back to the evidence and not the scientific stories.

“When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, ‘Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall. When the psycho-analyst writes to a patient, ‘The submerged instincts of the cave-man are doubtless prompting you to gratify a violent impulse,’ he does not refer to the impulse to paint in water-colours; or to make conscientious studies of how cattle swing their heads when they graze. Yet we do know for a fact that the cave man did these mild and innocent things; and we have not the most minute speck of evidence that he did any of the violent and ferocious things. In other words the cave-man as commonly presented to us is simply a myth or rather a muddle; for a myth has at least an imaginative outline of truth. The whole of the current way of talking is simply a confusion and a misunderstanding, founded on no sort of scientific evidence and valued only as an excuse for a very modern mood of anarchy. […] Indeed I once knew a lady who half-humorously suggested that the cave was a crèche, in which the babies were put to be specially safe, and that coloured animals were drawn on the walls to amuse them; very much as diagrams of elephants and giraffes adorn a modern infant school. And though this was but a jest, it does draw attention to some of the other assumptions that we make only too readily. The pictures do not prove even that the cave-men lived in caves, any more than the discovery of a wine-cellar in Balham (long after that suburb had been destroyed by human or divine wrath) would prove that the Victorian middle classes lived entirely underground. The cave might have had a special purpose like the cellar; it might have been a religious shrine or a refuge in war or the meeting place of a secret society or all sorts of things. But it is quite true that its artistic decoration has much more of the atmosphere of a nursery than of any of these nightmares of anarchical fury and fear.”

Going back to the key question; what is Man?  If he is not the brute that scientists make him out to be, then he must be man.  Man is not an animal because he thinks, he feels, he expresses himself, he has fears, he has mystery.  Remove the man from man and these mysteries cannot be explained.

“The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. Whether we praise these things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique. This is realised by the whole popular instinct called religion.”


Remember that this is not an attack against evolution but the philosophy behind evolution.  The issue here at stake is the nature of man.  If science is there is give explanations about the world around us, then let is scrutinize those explanations to see if they work – not just shift the time scale.  When man become just an animal, just a brute other factors need to step in to explain why we are.  These factors could be societal influences, all the way to genetic histories.  Of course to do so Man must become an animal… just a part of nature.  I just finished a book Ten Books that Screwed up the Word by Benjamin Wilker that it’s main premise is when people try to explain away God, they also explain away what is means to be Man.  The truth is Man will always be Man no matter the explanation – and that religion in general was the first to recognize that.


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